Last week I attended the Cuba, IT & Social Media Summit in New York City. The summit brought together leaders in the field to discuss the use of these technologies and capabilities in Cuba, today and in the future. Many, but not all, of the participants were of Cuban heritage, either directly born on the island like me or whose parents were.
The meeting was not political in nature. I suspect that most attendees hold views similar to mine regarding Cuba, bemoaning both the repressive nature of the Cuban regime as well as the ineffectual, anachronistic US embargo. But I don’t really know, because politics was not the primary focus of our discussions.
The key overarching goal of the meeting was “to empower Cubans on the island through technology, helping them to communicate with each other more freely on the island and with the outside world, to access information more freely, and to share information with the rest of the world.” A second major goal was to start thinking about the future and specifically what is needed to bring Cuba into the 21st century technologically “once laws have been passed that allow the US and Cuba to trade more freely in technology, both in public and private enterprise, and by industry sector.”
A very good summary of the Cuba, IT and Social Media Summit, and in particular of its key conclusions and outcomes can be found in this entry of the blog El Yuma by Ted Henken, a faculty member in the departments of Sociology and Black and Hispanic Studies at CUNY's Baruch College. (Yuma is a slang name often used in Cuba to refer to Americans.)
The summit was sponsored by the Cuba Study Group, an organization founded ten years ago “to facilitate a peaceful reunification of the Cuban nation leading to a free and open society with respect for human rights, the rule of law and a market-based economy.” Its key objectives include “respect for human and political rights and individual freedoms in Cuba, and denounce the violation of those rights and freedoms”; “substantive economic changes that improve the lives of Cubans”; and “discussion and critical analysis of ideas and formulate policy recommendations that facilitate peaceful change in Cuba.”
The ideal transition would be something like what Spain went through after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. I realize that this is likely both idealistic and naive, but it is good to have stretch goals. Spain is not the only model. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other former communist countries represent a variety of other transition models, across a spectrum of representative governments and individual freedoms. Even former US enemies like Vietnam have made positive transitions in the last decade
Peaceful, positive transitions need to be nurtured and helped along. King Juan Carlos played a major role in overseeing the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, including standing up to a military coup attempt in 1981. Unfortunately, a Juan Carlos kind of figure has not emerged in Cuba, the US or Latin America with the moral stature to help oversee such a peaceful transition. I keep hoping that when the time comes, such helpful statesmen will emerge. Perhaps Bill Clinton could play such a role. Brazilian President Lula da Silva is another possibility. One could imagine that Juan Carlos himself, who is much revered across Latin America, can once more lend his hand to another historical transition.
The European Union, NATO and other such intergovernmental institutions played major roles in the political and economic transition of several former communist states in Europe. The Organization of American States (OAS) is getting ready to play such a role, starting with the re-admission of Cuba into the OAS subject to Cuba’s compliance with all treaties signed by the member states.
It is hard to know what the US government is doing in trying to foster such a peaceful transition. As we know, US-Cuban relations are a very controversial issue. Polls show that the majority of Americans favor ending the trade embargo and travel restrictions, as well as establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, a relatively small but highly vocal Cuban-American lobby opposes these measures, and has continued to successfully prevent most US government policy changes.
While waiting for these strategic policy issues to play out, we should try to reach out to and directly help people in Cuba in any way possible. Internet technologies and social media represent potential mechanisms to empower the Cuban people to better communicate with each other as well as with the outside world. For years now we have seen the power of these technologies, most recently with Iran’s Green movement.
The Internet, mobile phones and related communication technologies are a thorn on the side of repressive governments. These governments try to control them to try to keep their people from using them. However, they cannot ban them outright unless they are willing to cut themselves off from the world altogether, including global trade and tourism. Few countries, e.g., North Korea, are willing to go that far.
A recent study by Freedom House analyzed the efforts of 15 governments around the world to control, monitor and censor the use of Internet and media technologies by their people, and assigned them a score from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free). Cuba, with a score of 90 was the least free, with China and Tunisia following with scores of 78 and Iran with 74. The report said:
“Despite the slight loosening of restrictions on the sale of computer and mobile-phone equipment in 2008, Cuba remains one of the world's most repressive environments for the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs). There is almost no access to internet applications other than e-mail, and surveillance is extensive. Nevertheless, a nascent community of bloggers has emerged on the island, creatively using online and offline means to express opinions and circulate information about Cuban society.”
This nascent community of bloggers in Cuba is a breath of fresh air. The most famous Cuban blogger is Yoani Sanchez. Yoani started her blog, Generation Y, in April of 2007. She writes that her blog is “an exercise in cowardice which lets me say, in this space, what is forbidden to me in my civic action.”
Her blog was quickly discovered by the world. As her popularity rose, the Cuban government filtered out her blog so it could no longer be accessed over the Internet within Cuba. Ever since then, Yoani has been blogging blind, unable to post or see her own blogs. She now e-mails her text and photographs to a virtual citizens network of friends abroad who then her new entries and help her remotely manage her Generation Y blog. Generation Y is now available in fifteen different languages, with all translations done by her virtual citizens network around the world.
Yoani has received a number of international journalism awards for her efforts, including the 2009 Maria Moors Cabor prize from Columbia University and the 2008 Ortega y Gasset award from the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Among other recognitions, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2008, and the World Economic Forum named her as one of their 2009 top Global Young Leaders.
Several months ago, Yoani Sanchez sent a written questionnaire to President Barack Obama, “with some of the issues that keep me from sleeping.” President Obama replied to each of her seven questions. But, he also took the opportunity to send a personal message to Yoani:
“Thank you for this opportunity to exchange views with you and your readers in Cuba and around the world and congratulations on receiving the Maria Moore Cabot Prize award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for coverage of Latin America that furthers inter-American understanding. You richly deserve the award. I was disappointed you were denied the ability to travel to receive the award in person.”
“Your blog provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba. It is telling that the Internet has provided you and other courageous Cuban bloggers with an outlet to express yourself so freely, and I applaud your collective efforts to empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology. The government and people of the United States join all of you in looking forward to the day all Cubans can freely express themselves in public without fear and without reprisals.”
None of us can predict when and how Cuba will change, but it is important to start preparing for that day. We all hope that Cuba will soon become a more free and open society, and that it will be able to trade freely with nations around the world including the US. Empowering the Cuban people with technologies like the Internet, mobile phones and social media may seem like small steps in the context of this larger quest, but as history has repeatedly shown, they are important steps that can over time lead to much larger ones.